Thursday, September 18, 2008

Giants in the Earth

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.
(Opening paragraph of Giants in the Earth)

Last night we had a discussion of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. The whole group enjoyed the book and agreed that it was certainly a good read; but during the discussion I was reminded of a story of the earth closer to home. That is the saga of Norwegian immigrants by O. E. Rolvaag entitled Giants in the Earth . It is a truly heroic epic of the settling of the upper plains of the United states during the nineteenth century. Rolvaag's narrative is focused on the family of Per Hansa with his long-suffering wife Beret and four children, And-Ongen, Store-Hans, Ole and Peder Victorious. The last of the children is born in their plains home while the others take part in the trek from Minnesota with which the novel begins. In addition to this family, their friends and neighbors who joined together to form the new plains settlement, the earth itself is the main character of this story. The focus on family and the importance of the earth in the story are two of the similarities between Buck's novel and Rolvaag's epic story. From the opening moments the narrative is alive with the sounds and colors that surround the immigrant family and the impact of nature and the earth continue to influence their lives throughout the book.

Filled with the vicissitudes of a life on the frontier, the novel celebrates the life of the family and community as they overcome each of the challenges they face. The challenge of crossing a major part of the continent and facing the inhospitableness of the wilderness was daunting to those who chose to venture out on this trek. Not all had the strength to complete the journey or to succeed in their new environment. Notable among the difficulties described by Rolvaag are the emotional problems of Beret as she comes to terms with her anxieties and fears in this rough community on the edge of civilization. Her story highlights the internal struggles of Per Hansa and his family and underlies the narrative of their interaction with the community at large. I have enjoyed this novel again and again ever since I read it as a teenager. Giants in the Earth is a magnificent portrayal of pioneer human achievement.

Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag. Harper & Row, New York, 1927.

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